Thu 04 Aug
There’s something broken about the way typeface licenses work. First, in my dozen or so years of working in professional design studios, I would say that most of those digital environments have habitually ‘pirated’ typefaces — or at least regularly violated licensing agreements — by more or less copying and distributing fonts wantonly. Everyone knows this.
For better or worse, the type industry has chosen not to crack down on this behavior by imposing unwieldy digital rights management or other draconian schemes on the market. Compared to the increasingly onerous anti-piracy measures for traditional application software, little attention is paid to preventing the proliferation of unlicensed typefaces, and by and large most designers enjoy the benefits of such a lax approach. But that rampant piracy has a negative effect: it keeps prices for quality typefaces high, or at least high enough to inhibit frequent designer adoption of new ones.
Designers face a chicken/egg quandary with new typefaces: to propose a typeface for a project — a logo or a brochure or whatever — it must first be purchased so that it can actually be used in comps that are then submitted to the client for approval. But in order to use a new typeface in a comp, a license for it must be purchased first — oftentimes top-shelf typefaces run several hundred dollars — and it’s difficult to make such an investment without knowing ahead of time that the client will approve of it.
In practice what this means is that designers rely mostly on their existing type libraries, often using the same faces over and over in their work. For designers with limited requirements, this may not be such a bad situation, but for those who regularly seek to expand their visual vocabulary, being economically inhibited from expanding a type library can actually shortchange the end product — a client may not be get the typeface that best suits her particular needs purely because the designer doesn’t already own it.
In order for a designer to branch out and select new types, what’s usually required is a clearly demonstrable need — a western-themed project may require an engraved typeface, for instance, or a formal project may suggest a blackletter face. These are facile examples because the equation becomes facile; when economic care rules typographic selection, the process is reduced to satisfying the most obvious requirements with the most obvious answers. Unless you have an unsubtle need for a new typeface, it’s hard to make a case for buying it.
In a world with greater generalized typography knowledge, one solution to this would be to create a ‘typeface selection’ phase in projects, where designers work with clients to select the typeface that best suits their needs from the specimens available from type vendors. This provides at least enough assurance for designers to purchase new faces… but the likelihood of getting a client with no hands-on design experience to select a new face from a cold specimen is pretty much zero.
Which leads me to my opening statement: typeface licensing is broken. We need a way for designers to be able to use typefaces on a temporary, probationary basis, at least long enough to be able to put it to practical, real world use for a client — two weeks, say.
Of course, this would require a wholly new kind of market infrastructure. I’m thinking maybe remote activation of typefaces: buy a two-week license for twenty dollars, and your Mac can “load” the typeface from a vendor’s server and make use of it for a limited time. If you need it for longer, rent it for another two weeks, or apply the twenty dollars toward the price of a permanent license, at which time you would be able to ‘physically’ download a copy to your machine. Such a solution would probably generate millions of new dollars for typographers and distributors in short-lifespan licenses, surely, but I bet it would also spur millions more in permanent licenses.
There are nontrivial technological challenges to such a system, however, and even as it stands, type management on any operating system is basically what you’d call “FUBAR.” More typefaces add more confusion to font management, of course, but so do more type formats and more licensing types, which is what I’m suggesting. But the reward would be well worth the challenges, I think.
And now you know why I use Helvetica for everything I do.